Labor and religious Zionism – together again

Four decades after undoing their historic alliance, the Jewish state's twin founders are meeting again – on their deathbeds.

Picture of Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Picture of Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them, said Winston Churchill.
It was in that spirit that religious Zionism and the Labor movement jointly built the Jewish state.
The alliance evolved haphazardly, as a byproduct of the Zionist Organization presidency’s passage in 1931 from Chaim Weizmann to David Ben-Gurion.
The Labor movement was never made of one skin, and its leaders’ attitudes toward religion ranged from the atheism of Meir Ya’ari, a Marxist rebel who instituted coed showering for teenagers in kibbutzim, to the traditionalism of Zalman Shazar, a hassid who regularly visited the Lubavitcher rebbe.
Still, Labor’s alliance with religious Zionism ran deep and lasted long. What began during the British Mandate with Labor’s collaboration in delivering of religious schools and kibbutzim was later followed by its imposition of Shabbat on the public sphere, and by entrusting marriage and divorce to rabbinical hands.
In return, religious Zionism gave Labor priceless support in crucial moments – for instance, when Ben-Gurion signed with West Germany the Reparations Agreement that brought Israel to the brink of civil war; or when he retreated from the Sinai in 1957; or when religious Zionist politicians brokered peace between Labor’s estranged leaders on the eve of the Six Day War.
As the ruling party’s permanent partner, the National Religious Party’s hacks were in the thick of the Labor-led establishment, manning thousands of public positions in myriad agencies, from the Interior Ministry to the Jewish Agency, as well as entire outfits, from the IDF Chaplaincy to housing company Mishhav.
It went this way for three decades, until Labor’s electoral collapse in 1977 and the NRP’s concurrent shift from Left to Right, after which the historic allies stared at each other from across the political divide carved by the new era’s hegemon – the Likud.
Four decades on, in a curious irony, Labor and religious Zionism meet again – this time as patients in the political hospice where they are staring at each other from adjacent deathbeds.
LABOR’S APPROACHING electoral debacle is unambiguous. Failing so far in all polls to reach double-digit figures, the party that led Israel’s establishment and at one point won 56 seats – the most any party ever held in any Knesset – is hardly a shadow of its former self.
Meanwhile, the NRP’s current incarnation, Bayit Yehudi, might altogether fail to pass the electoral threshold, following its abandonment by its leader and his establishment of a rival, nonreligious party.
Yes, religious Zionism might technically salvage its parliamentary presence, following its merger with the National Union’s zealots. Substantively, however, even without Bezalel Smotrich, Bayit Yehudi is now a perversion of what religious Zionism originally was.
Under the leadership of Ben-Gurion’s most loyal ally, Haim Moshe Shapira, religious Zionism never asked rabbis what to do politically; that was one of the most fundamental differences between them and ultra-Orthodoxy. Now, led by former IDF chief rabbi Rafi Peretz, the party will take orders from rabbis like Peretz’s mentor, messianic sage Rabbi Zvi Yisrael Tau.
Whatever this party’s prospects and delivery, religious Zionism – as it has been known since the establishment in 1902 of the Mizrachi movement – is, like Labor, politically dead. That is both movements’ present. Their future, however, is entirely different.
MODERN ORTHODOXY is approaching the political graveyard because its ancestors’ mission has been accomplished.
Observant Israelis’ interests are secure. They get all the educational institutions and budgets they can possibly want, there is no religious legislation they feel a need to pass, and there is no public position they cannot reach, anywhere – in government, academia, business, the judiciary, the security forces, you name it.
Observant people have already headed the Israel Police, the Shin Bet, the Hebrew University and the Bank of Israel, and also served as attorney-general, deputy chief of General Staff, ambassadors to Washington, London and the UN, and whatnot. The Labor era’s glass ceilings have long been shattered, and observant Israelis know that.
Moreover, most Modern Orthodox Israelis don’t share messianic rabbis’ hope that someday all Jews will be the same as them, and they don’t feel a need to live in sectarian communities where everyone thinks, dresses and talks like them. They have secular friends, neighbors and lifestyles, and increasingly also marry nonobservant Israelis without demanding they abandon their secularism.
That’s why Modern Orthodox Israelis flock to secular parties, both as politicians and as voters, and that’s why Bayit Yehudi’s own departing leader, evidently feeling the sectarian cause’s futility, has replaced its flag with what he hopes will be a cross-sectarian party.
Labor’s demise is an entirely different story.
Yes, like religious Zionism, whose entire political existence has lost its relevance, Labor’s role as leader of the Jewish state’s establishment has also lost its relevance. The state has been delivered.
However, Labor had another task – shielding the working class. Tragically, Labor forgot this cause, twice: first, when it abandoned the poorer and less educated electorate to Menachem Begin; and then when it dedicated its energies to a peace vision that, in the eyes of most its original voters, failed.
Now, unlike religious Zionism, which lost its political relevance but retains its strong social presence, Labor lacks its former social presence but retains its political potential.
That is what Labor’s primary voters effectively said this week, when they sidelined Eitan Cabel, one of the Oslo era’s last veterans, while giving social activist Itzik Shmuli more votes than any other candidate.
In 1992, when Cabel was an aide to Shimon Peres while his circle was preparing the Oslo Accords, Shmuli was preparing for his bar mitzvah.
A special-education graduate who lived for a year in remote Kibbutz Ein Gedi, and before that spent five years in proletarian Lod, Shmuli hardly discusses foreign affairs. He is there for the working person, fighting for causes like social workers’ pay, Holocaust survivors’ allotments, and contract workers’ rights.
Such causes, unlike Modern Orthodoxy, will always demand political power because, as Moses already observed, “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.”
Four decades after parting ways, the former allies are meeting again – on their deathbeds